Illinois freshman Maestas explosive in first week of competition

When the new freshman on the Illinois men’s gymnastics team walks into Kenney Gym, the first thing he sees is the banner on the wall that says 1989 national champions. He points at it and says, “it’s going to say 2012 on there.”

It may seem bold to come in with that swagger, but C.J. Maestas is more than just talk.

“This kid is unreal,” said head coach Justin Spring. “He has the potential to blow out any record I ever set. He has the potential to be the greatest Illini gymnast of all time.”

Spring said Maestas proved himself this past weekend in St. Paul, Minn., at the VISA Championships, where he took the silver medal on rings and qualified for the U.S. Senior National Team and the Pan-American Games Team. Though young, Maestas is no stranger to international competition. The freshman competed in the Cottbus Challenge Cup in Germany, taking fourth on rings, as a national team member earlier this year.

“I just put myself in the mindset of when I competed (for the national team) in Germany and thought, ‘We’re home, this is our turf now,’” Maestas said. “It was almost identical, better than the routine in Germany. I stuck my dismount, my turns were perfect. Everything in the second day on the ring routine was amazing.”

Maestas’ rings routine was the best of Friday night, but he lost in the two-day competition to Brandon Wynn.

This past weekend was Maestas’ first time competing as part of a college team — he was joined at the VISAs by five Illinois teammates.

Leading up to that weekend, Spring had been recruiting him for more than two years, watching Maestas through a long and difficult journey.

During high school in Corrales, N.M., he surrounded himself with a troublesome group of friends and he moved away from his parents for a while, sleeping on friends’ couches. College wasn’t in his forecast.

“He just wasn’t in the environment conducive to focusing on school,” Spring said. “He needed to find the right place.”

Maestas eventually turned his life around and decided to spend time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he dedicated himself full time to training in gymnastics and raising his ACT scores to earn acceptance to Illinois.

Eventually he made the cut, meaning he will be the first person in his family to get a college education.

“A lot of coaches ask me, ‘Are you worried about him,’ and I’m like, ‘No,” Spring said. “We’ve got incredible structure here for our student athletes … with all that in place I think he will do nothing but succeed in education and gymnastics.”

Spring admires Maestas’ story, giving it credit for teaching him discipline, the characteristic Spring believes most important, along with natural talent, for becoming a successful athlete.

“You can ask any coach in any sport, how many talented guys they see that don’t do anything. It’s because they lack that other element,” Spring said. “That’s what’s so impressive with C.J.’s maturity level and how focused and driven he is at such a young age.”

The plan is for Maestas to be a leader on the team from the beginning.

“He is unbelievable,” assistant coach Daniel Ribeiro said.

“He doesn’t have any weaknesses. There’s not a single event that he is weak on. Going through all six events, he’s probably going to be top four on every single event,” Ribeiro added.

Spring knows Maestas has a lot of training to do, as his skills must still be developed. He nevertheless has unlimited faith in him.

“If we were to have NCAA Championships next week, there’s no doubt he’d have a shot at NCAA all-around champion,” said Spring, more than seven months before nationals will take place.

Maestas thinks Illinois is his perfect fit away from the west, where “fans have become his best friend,” he said with a laugh.

“I’ve only been here for a couple months but it feels like I’ve been here for a couple years,” Maestas said. “There’s a connection that only we share and only the people around us understand. We’re a family now, this is like a second family to me. It brought me back home, it was something I wanted to be a part of, I can’t see myself anywhere else.”

That doesn’t mean he won’t make it back to New Mexico. His dream is to qualify for the Olympics in 2012, 2016 and 2020 before returning to his hometown to open his own restaurant with his mother and cook Mexican food.

“I want to be like in the Rocky movies where he hangs up all his murals and all his best memories and goes around and talks to everyone,” Maestas said. “That’s what I want to do.”

For now, Maestas is ready to live up to the buzz surrounding him, and to accomplish his dream.

“I want to be the first Illinois gymnast to come in and not just be the guy they talk about,” Maestas said.

“I want to represent and show them what I do.”